Monthly Archives: December 2013

Remembering Ellie Barr

images 16-20-59I can’t let 2014 begin without writing a few words about an important mentor to me who passed away this year. Elinor Barr, a through and through early childhood educator, was the kind of advocate for children and childhood that is needed so desperately in a time that seems to have turned its back on the important needs of young children.

I met Ellie in 1980 when she was supervising a student teacher in my classroom. I was teaching very young children (3 year olds) that year and felt out of my element and rather insecure. Ellie was always so positive and upbeat. She praised me and also gently gave me some much- needed suggestions. When I left the small private school where I had been working to teach a pre-kindergarten class in the local public school, Ellie followed along with me. A few years later she invited me to teach a class on early childhood education at Kingsborough Community College where she was a professor. I knew how much the education of aspiring teachers meant to Ellie and I was touched by her trust in sharing that important responsibility with me.

Ellie was gentle, wise, smart and funny. There also were sides to her that I wasn’t  aware of until her memorial on November 16th. I learned that Ellie was a lifelong peace and social justice activist. That she worked to integrate the New York City public schools in the 1960’s by helping to organize a reverse busing program. She was involved with helping to enforce anti-discrimination laws in Brooklyn, New York housing. She marched…for civil rights, against the atomic bomb, against wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and for all things that might benefit children and education. For over 20 years she was a volunteer on the Hotline at Gay Mens Health Crisis. She taught at an integrated and inclusive nursery school for many years. Ellie was a Doctor of Education and a Professor of Early Childhood Education at Kingsborough Community College for 40 years and she was a Carey Fellow at the Bank Street College of Education.

The memorial at the Brooklyn Friend’s Meeting House was packed. Many people got up to speak. I was particularly moved by the words spoken by Ellie’s Kingsborough colleague, Barbara Weiserbs:

Ellie was a rare person, a combination of political and social awareness, activism, gentleness and steadfast strength, progressivism in education, appreciation of the arts, but mostly an appreciation of and sensitivity to people. You could recognize these characteristics in the way she spoke, the questions she asked and her honest thoughtfulness.

The first time I met Ellie, back in 1979 when I started working at Kingsborough, I knew that I wanted to get to know her. I stopped by her office, which was in the block room. Actually, it was a desk in one corner of the block room. The walls around her desk were filled with pictures. I remember being struck by two. One was a photo taken during the depression of a woman looking worn out and worried, Florence Owens Thompson with her children. The other was the face of Paul Robeson.
I soon discovered that I had found an academic home, an oasis for sharing ideas in a solid early childhood program. Mostly it was Ellie who created this program, and based it on the best of human values: caring for all, interested in all, with support and fairness.
She built the program
She guided people in it.
She created the materials and the curriculum.
And her program lives on.
Outsiders wanted to understand how our classes encouraged the insights that students internalized and took with them to other colleges when they transferred.
There was no deep dark secret. It was the commitment to the program that was shared by faculty, especially by Ellie. She stayed late. “You go”, she would say, “I’ll take care of it.”
She came in early to speak with students whose schedules were difficult because of responsibilities to children, work and their own classes. She chaired weekly meetings for many years for the purpose of finding solutions to student problems, and eventually these meetings came to be known as the “Ellie Meetings’. They clarified issues for faculty and they helped faculty come together as a team, working for a common goal. She spent time visiting schools, looking for better placements, schools where students could experience first hand the teaching approach and classroom settings we spoke about, especially as the discrepancy between what we taught and what students experienced in the school system increased.

She designed the student internships with seminars and conferences to help students better understand their experiences. Assignments in field courses were so meaningful that they are still being used with little modification.

Likewise, many art workshops that she developed continue. The art course was and is central to the program. It puts many core early childhood concepts into workshop form for the students to appreciate. I know some of you had her as a teacher. Lucky you. Students loved her and remembered her long after they left Kingsborough.
She gave of herself to her students, to the program and to her colleagues. She listened and offered advice with a quiet-strong voice made so by the content of what she said. After she retired, she came to Kingsborough weekly and tutored students who needed help with their written work. And who better to help them, because she understood their assignments better than anyone. She had designed them.

She spoke up to add her voice to support the needs of children.
At meetings she’d say, “I want to say something.” And she would open up the discussion to issues that affected the lives of children and their parents, their schools. “What do your students think about this problem?” she would ask. In this way, she continued the struggle for a socially just world and raised the importance of these issues in the minds of students and faculty alike.

She continued to express her support for the needs of children in many other ways too. She demonstrated against cuts in education, she demonstrated for education programs that were invigorating and nourishing. She attended many meetings and fought her entire life for learning processes that enhanced children’s lives. As a leader in the field, she wrote letters and grant proposals to explain and support her position. Here is an excerpt from a letter that she wrote to the chancellor of the Department of Education in 2005:

“As educators and teacher trainers, we are concerned by the lack of play in New York City’s early childhood classrooms. There is a great disparity between how we train our students and what they are exposed to in the public school system.
If our goal is to help create adults who reach the highest levels in all disciplines, we have to provide experiences that encourage experimentation, inquiry, self-motivation, critical and divergent thinking and creativity. In the early years, this is achieved through play.”

The other day, one of my grandchildren asked for an “everything” book. “What is an “everything” book? Is that an encyclopedia, or a dictionary?”
“Yes”, she said, “I want to know about the solar system and how the earth came to be and countries and everything.”
Ellie wanted everything for children too, she wanted them to know everything and to have everything and to grow up being interested in everything.
That is who Ellie was. She engaged in every type of activism to fight for children’s needs: their basic human needs and their “everything” needs.

Last year Ellie visited my husband’s art exhibit in Manhattan and, coincidentally, it was a day that Simon and I visited the exhibit. It was a wonderful surprise to meet Ellie there. After she and Simon discussed his work, I had a few moments to sit and talk with her about the present state of early childhood education. We both lamented the pushing down of an inappropriate curriculum into the kindergarten and first grade classrooms around the city. We worried about how this would affect children now and in their futures. This was the last time that I spoke with Ellie.

I wonder about who will be the spokespersons for kindergarten and first grade children as the “Ellie’s” pass away? Who will be brave enough to defend developmentally appropriate curriculums without being afraid of being called “old fashioned” and “out of synch with the times?” I hope that I can hold on to Elinor Barr’s strength and knowledge about young children and that I can continue to defend them on her behalf.



Last week, on December 11th, I attend a “Town Hall” forum where John King, New York State Commissioner of Education and Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, “listened” to 45 different people speak passionately either for or against the Common Core Learning Standards and the high stakes tests that accompany them. It was a depressing evening. Ms. Tisch sat silently while Mr. King gave glib sound bites to any criticism of the CCLS and of the high stakes testing.

As I sat through the two and a half hour meeting, I couldn’t help reflecting on my own teaching career. Didn’t I have high standards for my students? Didn’t I provide a learning environment where children were encouraged to widen their horizons and challenge themselves to reach for the stars? Didn’t the children thrive academically and socially in a classroom where we sang, played, experimented, and wondered? In a very moving speech at my retirement party in 2003, my colleague at the New York City Department of Education, Office of Instructional Support, Gabriel Feldberg, said, “She taught her preschoolers and kindergartners to call on their own senses and observations, to see meaning in everything from paintings in museums to pollution in the Gowanus Canal. She taught them to do what she must have done as a child: she taught them to teach themselves” How did I do this without the Common Core Learning Standards?

There seems to be a stigma attached to any criticism of these standards. The implication appears to be that anyone who questions the CCLS is, ipso facto, not in favor of having high standards for their students. How insulting!

I’m trying to be open to these new standards but I wonder about the legitimacy of micromanaging expectations for young children. In an article on young children learning to read, in the Scholastic publication Early Childhood Today, Sue Bredekamp, author of Effective Practices in Early Childhood Education: Building a Foundation, agreed that, “There is … a huge range of individual variation that is absolutely normal.” Anyone who knows 5, 6 and 7 year olds, particularly those who have raised siblings, will understand the wide range of developmental jumps from one child to another and from one year to another. How can we possibly mandate that every five year old child, by June, will “Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding” or “Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds (phonemes) in three-phoneme (consonant-vowel-consonant, or C VC) words.* ( This does not include CVCs ending with /l/, /r/, or /x/.) “ I might feel more comfortable if the standards were written to say, “By the end of second grade, students should….” and leave it at that. Let there be some acknowledgement of the variety of learning styles and rates of young children. Teachers could see a goal for the future, but not have to lock step the instruction and strangle the joy of learning that we want to instill in our young students.

One of the speakers at the December 11th meeting was Liz Phillips, the principal of P.S. 321 where I taught for many years. She certainly represented a voice of reason as she presented her thoughts on the ill effects of high stakes testing. While we don’t necessarily agree on all issues, I was quite impressed with her talk. I asked her if I could share her speaking notes on my blog. Here they are:

Liz Phillips PS 321
• I really believe most of us here have the same goal—high quality education for all students; equity in education.
• We have some serious differences about how we reach that goal, and I am deeply concerned that current state policy is moving us so much further from this goal and increasing the achievement gap as some schools feel compelled to give up a rich curriculum to spend increasing amounts of time on test prep in place of the arts, recess, and hands-on activities that develop critical thinking, problem solving and collaborative skills.
• I’m in favor of having high expectations for children, in holding ourselves accountable, in assessing children—we do that daily. I’m not opposed to some standardized testing, used appropriately. I’M EVEN IN FAVOR OF THE COMMON CORE STANDARDS—RICH POSSIBILITIES.
• What I am strongly opposed to is the nature of the current tests; the way cut scores have been manipulated; the way the state is spending a huge amount of money to pay Pearson and outside consultants, and the high stakes decisions being made with very questionable data. I AM VERY SAD THAT SOMETHING THAT HAD A LOT OF PROMISE—THE CCS—HAS BEEN SO TAINTED BY INAPPROPRIATE TESTING THAT IS LABELED AS CCS ALIGNED.
• THE TESTS ARE UNNECESSARILY LONG. There is no reason that a fourth grader needs to spend close to 5 hours…270 minutes on an ELA test and 5 hours on a math test. We can assess how our kids are doing on much shorter tests.
• AND, BY TYING TEACHER EVALUATION TO MINUTE CHANGES IN TEST SCORES, WE ARE DOING A HUGE DISSERVICE TO STUDENTS. IN NYC.  WE KNOW, FROM OUR EXPERIENCE WITH TDRS, THAT THE DATA SIMPLY IS INACCURATE AND MISLEADING…and that it will lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. We are using numbers that may seem to mean something when they don’t. One example…one year, one of our teachers had an average proficiency level of 3.97 (student’s scores from third grade)…OUT OF 4.5 at the end of the year her average proficiency level was 3.92. No statistician would claim that this is a statistically significant difference—and most of us would agree that kids scoring an average of 3.92 on the test means kids are well on the way to being college ready. This happened to be one of the strongest teachers in my school—by any other measure—parent satisfaction, children’s feedback, and my observations. Yet this insignificant change landed her in the 6th percentile.
• The exams need to be significantly shorter, not shortened by 6-7 minutes as day as has currently been proposed.
• We need to minimize the impact of test administration and grading by having the state centrally grade the tests…tremendous inequality when wealthy districts can pay outside companies to grade tests but in NYC school pick up the cost by having to send teachers to grade and hire substitutes. In my school we were mandated to send 5 teachers to score for 15 days each….and pay for 75 subs to cover them.
• There needs to be a change overall in the financial priorities of the state, with more money going to schools and less to outside companies and consultants.
• We need to make sure that test scores are not the determining factor in teacher evaluation so that the curriculum is not narrowed out of desperation.
We need to do this so that so that we can truly prepare all children to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, lifelong learners, and effective citizens in a democracy.
Thank you.

Teachers Talk Testing

Celia OylerThis past Tuesday, December 3rd, P.S. 321 in Park Slope Brooklyn, hosted a forum titled Teachers Talk Testing. A panel made up of five teachers, a public school principal (Liz Phillips) and a professor from Teachers College (Celia Oyler) all spoke with great passion and knowledge. They presented very specific examples describing the destructive effect that high stakes testing is having on public school children.

The teachers and parents have set up a very impressive website,

I hope that you will all visit it often. It will be continuously updated.

New York city residents are URGED to also sign the petition to Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio, which is posted on the site. 
While there are more aspects of high stakes testing that need to be changed, the petition asks that the new mayor take the following actions once in office:
1. End promotion tied to test scores.
2. End middle and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores.
3. End school report cards based primarily on student test scores.
It is pointed out that these changes won’t fix everything, but they’d be a great start in helping to lower the weight these high stakes tests are currently placing on teachers and their students.
Once again, please do go to to sign the petition to Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio and read more about actions being taken to oppose these high stakes test.

Here is an article about the meeting that was posted on

Brooklyn Teachers Blast Emphasis on Testing
Wednesday, December 04, 2013 – 04:00 AM
A group of veteran teachers described in detail Tuesday night how an emphasis on standardized tests was sucking the joy out of the classroom, adding undue stress to students and educators themselves.
“The tests are kind of ruining what we love,” said Sara Greenfield, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 321 William Penn in Park Slope. She said that the time needed to prepare for the tests has displaced experiential learning.
“At this point it’s a luxury for most New York City teachers to choose to take their classes to a dance performance, instead of read about a dancer and answer multiple choice questions about that dancer,” she said.
Greenfield and others spoke to parents and fellow teachers in the P.S. 321 auditorium at a forum under the umbrella of Teachers Talk Testing, a newly-formed group seeking to reduce the emphasis on testing in three ways: ending grade promotion tied to test scores; ending middle school and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores; and revising the way test scores factor into school progress reports.
For some, the issue of over-testing was connected to the implementation of the Common Core learning standards. Tuesday’s panel came at a time when the New York education commissioner, John King, has been holding community forums — at times contentious — around the state. The New York City forum has not been scheduled yet.
King recently defended the push for the Common Core — and the new tests aligned to the standards, saying that too many students were graduating high school unprepared for college. But critics have said that the standards and tests are being pushed too fast, especially after less than one third of students statewide passed the tests last spring.
“There’s a lot of good things in the Common Core standards, and I think most good teachers would agree that we want to hold our students to high standards,” said Alex Messer, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 321. “But the Common Core standards have come out quickly,” without enough time to work out the kinks, he said.
P.S. 321’s principal, Liz Phillips, bluntly brought the problem with the Common Core back to testing. “The value of the Common Core has become totally tainted because of the tests,” she said.
Teachers reported that despite their best efforts to avoid test prep, they felt it would be unfair to put students in a testing situation without familiarity with the format and types of questions they would need to answer. And, despite an effort to downplay the importance of the tests, students were fully aware of the stakes involved, they said.
“Children, contrary to popular belief, are observant,” said Sam Coleman, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park. “They pick this stuff up.”
Ronda Matthews, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 321, said watching her students struggle with the tests was painful.
“The high-stakes associated with testing has such unforgiving consequences for my students and myself,” she said. “I find it hard to stomach that such extreme decisions and labels are placed on students and teachers alike based on a few days of a high-pressure situation.”
Now, with student performance on state tests also factoring into teacher evaluations, the system may not only weed out ineffective teachers but also discourage highly effective teachers as well, said Julie Cavanagh, a special education teacher at P.S. 15 Patrick F. Daly in Red Hook.
“I find myself subjecting these kids that I love to this thing that’s not good for them, doesn’t benefit them, doesn’t give me the information that I need — which is supposed to be the purpose of assessments,” she said. “It is the definition of insanity.”

Taking Ownership

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I know where I’m going
And I know who’s going with me
Irish Folk Song

Sometimes we think that we know where we are going. We have plans. We have all the tools that we need to get there. We’re well – prepared for the journey.
And yet, something along the way moves us in another direction. It entices us.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a market study that was taking place in a first grade class in East New York, Brooklyn. The children visited many different markets and they were involved in recreating the markets in their classroom. This was their direction…learning about and recreating markets. All was well. Children were absorbed in the study. The teachers understood the roadmap. And then…

The class went on a trip to the Union Square Market, a large farmers market located in Manhattan. “Where’s the market?” the children asked, looking for the sliding doors, the big freezers, the conveyer belts. “Oh, so THIS is the market!” What a discovery!union market smaller

The children were given 2-dollar vouchers that they pooled together and they bought all sorts of new and unknown vegetables…. Brussels sprouts, parsley, kale, spinach, peppers, basil, celery…and brought them back to the classroom to observe and taste.tasting.smallerjpg

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Each child took home a “mystery bag” of vegetables to share with their families. The next day they brought in lists of all that they could name and identify and told each other what they did with the vegetables when they brought them home.

The farm and the produce became a hot topic of conversation. “I wonder if we could make a farm in our classroom?” mused the teacher. Yes!

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The children planted seeds and labeled their crops.


They constructed fences between the different vegetables that were in their gardens.

The road turned.

The Market Study has morphed into a study of good nutrition. This was amazingly timely, coinciding with Michelle Obama’s attempt to confront childhood obesity with her “Let’s Move” initiative. Katie Rust, one of the teachers, sent me this message in an email, “we decided, after much pressing …to write to Michelle Obama about our work with fresh produce. Our class is beginning a “Healthy Food Initiative” …. Mr. Mastin and I are taking a teacher pledge to offer only fresh produce as snacks, and parents will be doing the same. Students will be writing letters describing our market study and how it has inspired us to be better decision makers about our food. We hope to complete the package to send within the next two weeks and we’ll keep you up to date. … I’ve attached the parent letter/pledge…. We’ll be having a healthy Thanksgiving party this Wednesday at noon “


The children have been reading circulars to see how healthy and not-so-healthy products are advertised. They’re becoming wise consumers.
The teachers and the children have taken ownership of this study and followed a detour leading to a more personal destination. Sometimes we think that we know where we are going. And yet, something along the way moves us in another direction.

December 6, 2013:  New photos added – The Avocado

Just about to taste this avocado

Just about to taste this avocado

I like the avocado!

messy avocado handscompostsprouting